Stephen D. Bechtel Jr., who took over his family’s global engineering and construction company, elevating its already formidable reputation and transforming what had been a hidebound, top-down hierarchy into a modern, if secretive, corporation, died on Monday at his home in San Francisco. He was 95.
The company announced his death.
Under Mr. Bechtel, sales swelled 11-fold at the Bechtel Group, the company founded by his grandfather that built scores of power plants, transit systems and other infrastructure projects on six continents, often pioneering new technologies in remote areas.
He enhanced the Bechtel name, known for projects like the Depression-era Hoover Dam, with major work on the Bay Area Rapid Transit system. He widened the company’s global footprint with work on the Channel Tunnel between Britain and France as well as the construction of Saudi Arabia’s King Khalid International Airport and Jubail Industrial City, perhaps the biggest civil engineering project of modern times.
“Global growth was beginning to take off” under him, said David J. O’Reilly, the retired chief executive of the Chevron Corporation and a Bechtel board member. He added that the company “became much more international” during Mr. Bechtel’s tenure, which lasted 30 years until his retirement in 1990.
From childhood, when he accompanied his father on inspection trips to the Hoover Dam, where a Bechtel-Kaiser partnership led a six-member consortium, Mr. Bechtel seemed destined for a career in construction. It was not until he had graduated from Purdue University, served a stint as a Marine Corps lieutenant and earned an M.B.A. from Stanford University that he joined the family business in 1948.
He had considered going into home building, but his father lured him to join the family company by taking him and his wife on a three-week honeymoon cruise around the world, during which he was purposefully exposed to Bechtel (pronounced BEK-tel) projects.
His first company assignment, after summers working as a sweeper and surveyor’s stake puncher, was on a pipeline in Texas under the tutelage of the company’s foremost executives.
His rise was swift. In 1960, when Mr. Bechtel was 35, his father asked him to consider taking over as president, just as the elder Mr. Bechtel had taken over from his father, Warren E. Bechtel (1872-1933), the founder. After some soul-searching, Stephen Jr. agreed — on condition that he could run Bechtel “solo,” according to a company account.
“I’ll have to do it my way,” he said. “When I take over, I’m the boss.”
Though his father remained chairman and chief executive until 1965 (he died in 1989), the younger Mr. Bechtel plotted his own course, retaining the company’s longstanding aversion to publicity (though that was somewhat modified in later years). “There’s no reason for people to hear of us,” he once told Newsweek magazine. “We’re not selling the public.”
He went on to preside over a notable switch to majority ownership by managers who were not family members.
In contrast to his father, a consummate salesman and business developer who conceived the BART system and made agreements with a handshake, Mr. Bechtel was a numbers whiz and the disciplined professional manager that the company needed for its era of large-scale projects.
George P. Shultz, a Bechtel executive for eight years and a holder of four federal cabinet posts, including labor secretary during the Nixon administration, said in an interview for this obituary in 2014 that any success he had in labor relations he owed to Mr. Bechtel. He said he told people, “I just put into effect things Stephen Bechtel taught me.” (Mr. Shultz, who served as executive vice president and president of Bechtel, died in February at 100.)
Heavily reliant on government contracts, the Bechtel Group has been a large contributor to political campaigns, mainly Republican, and over the years employed many former high-ranking intelligence and defense officials. President George H.W. Bush awarded Mr. Bechtel the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 1991.
In the 1980s, the Bechtel Group was severely tested after a collapse in the price of oil led to a dearth of construction business from the energy industries.
“Our market fell apart on us,” prompting a huge cost-cutting drive, Mr. Bechtel told Laton McCartney, the author of a company history. A family investment company also disposed of its controlling interest in Dillon, Read & Co., the venerable Wall Street firm that Bechtel acquired in 1981.
The company later came under scrutiny for its management of Boston’s “Big Dig” infrastructure megaproject beginning in the early 1990s, involving the building of highways, tunnels and bridges. Bechtel and its partner in overseeing the project, Parsons Brinckerhoff, agreed in 2008 to pay $407 million to settle litigation over leaky tunnels and a fatal ceiling collapse.
Stephen Davison Bechtel Jr. was born on May 10, 1925, in Oakland, Calif. He enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve as a senior in high school and was sent by the military to the University of Colorado to study engineering.
There he learned his limitations. “I learned early on I wasn’t as smart as some of the other kids. I had to work at it. The only way to do that was to organize my time,” he was quoted as saying in Mr. McCartney’s company history, “Friends in High Places. The Bechtel Story: The Most Secret Corporation and How It Engineered the World.”
On graduating from Purdue University in 1946, he married Elizabeth Mead Hogan (known as Betty). They had two sons, Riley, who succeeded Mr. Bechtel as chairman and chief executive, and Gary; three daughters, Shana Johnstone, Lauren Dachs and Nonie Ramsey; and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His grandson Brendan Bechtel succeeded Riley Bechtel in 2016. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.
Mr. Bechtel was believed to hold 20 percent of the company shares, the bulk of a fortune estimated by Forbes this year at $2.9 billion.
An avid hiker, he once trekked to base camp at Mount Everest and walked the 211-mile John Muir Trail with family members. In 1957, he created a foundation to support environmental causes. In 2009, the foundation gave $50 million toward the creation of the Summit Bechtel Family National Scout Reserve in southern West Virginia. The reserve has become the home of the national Boy Scout jamboree.
In 2013 the foundation donated $25 million to enhance the Presidio, a former military base bordering San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge; it was thought to have been the largest cash gift to a national park. The foundation also funded an expansion of youth facilities at the Presidio’s Crissy Field Center.
The Bechtel Group moved its longtime headquarters in San Francisco to Reston, Va., in 2018.
After retiring as chief executive in 1990, Mr. Bechtel for five years headed the Fremont Group, a developer and manager of real estate whose venture-capital arm was an early investor in Starbucks.
On rare occasions, the Bechtel Group would come out of its shell. One such time was in the spring of 1987, when the company was rebounding from its slump and the magazine Engineering News-Record had again placed it atop its annual survey of industry leaders.
Mr. Bechtel marked the occasion with an uncharacteristic bit of crowing: He ordered that the lights in the 23-story Bechtel high-rise in San Francisco be lit to form a giant numeral one.